30th June 2006
Dear Sarai Fellows,
This mail contains a review that I wrote for The Biblio: A Review of Books for the May-June 2006 issue. I would appreciate comment and feedback.
A Polemical Work against Islam
By VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED
The Trouble With Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change
By Irshad Manji
Imprint One, New Delhi, 2005, xiii + 258 pp., Rs. 295
Distributed by Foundation Books
Why am I a Muslim? Is it because I was born a Muslim or is it because I believe in Islam. The two positions are not contradictory; I could be a person who was born a Muslim and also believe this is the best faith among the panoply of spiritual alternatives available. I’ve never given the question significant thought until reading Irshad Manji’s provocative The Trouble With Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change. This is Manji’s second book after Risking Utopia: On the Edge of a New Democracy published in 1997. Manji grew up in Canada and her experiences in understanding Islam in Vancouver form a major part of the early chapters of her book.
Manji’s book primarily targets Muslims and forces them to confront their shibboleths. The book is in the form of an open letter and the introductory chapter begins with an address to “My Fellow Muslims”. It is the beginning of a personal memoir and is passionate, controversial, irreverent and even blasphemous at times as this quote demonstrates, “Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We’re in crisis, and we’re dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?”.
Her book is partly an autobiography, a travelogue, a polemic against practised Islam, an amateur attempt at history writing; all of these hyphenated by cursory analysis. She carries on a conversation with the reader and there is no attempt at political correctness. She is blunt and revels in the uneasiness she stirs in the reader. The interesting part about Manji is that she identifies herself as a Muslim in spite of having several irreconcilable differences with Islam (her homosexuality being the biggest). She chooses to criticise Islam while remaining a Muslim and writes that she chose to stay within Islam because “…the imperative of identity kicked in…Most of us aren’t Muslims because we think about it, but rather because we’re born that way. It’s who we are.”
Manji addresses several themes in her book, some ritualistic and some geopolitical, but at the root of all these troubles she sees Islam to be responsible and feels that the time has come for an Islamic reformation to take place.
The most important issue that she raises when she talks about the rituals of Islam is that whether Muslims all over the world are succumbing to a form of ‘desert Islam’ and coins a phrase ‘foundamentalism’ to describe this. By desert Islam she means the sort of Islam practised by the Arabs. She writes, “To parrot the desert peoples in clothing, in language, or in prayer is not necessarily to follow the universal God.” This harks of Naipaul who wrote in the introduction to his book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples that “Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language becomes Arabic. His idea of history alters.”
She also writes that literalism is going worldwide in Islam and is ideologically colonising Muslim minds. Legitimacy for every act for Muslims, not only religious, but also political and social, (Islam doesn’t differentiate between the spiritual and the temporal realm) needs to be derived from two sources, i.e., the Quran and the hadis. So when Manji is asking Muslims to look beyond these two sources it contradicts one of the fundamental beliefs of any Muslim.
She questions the perfection of the Quran calling it an ambiguous document and writes that Muslims must begin to question the Quran and the hadis. The Prophet was not an infallible man, she says, and thus his actions need not be emulated. Historians of Islam have made these arguments before but her casual manner will only incense Muslim fideists who believe in the pristinity of the Quran and the infallibility of the Prophet.
Manji forcefully calls for an Islamic reformation and says that Ijtihad needs to be done for contemporary times. The first act of ‘Operation Ijtihad’, as she calls it, should be that female Muslim entrepreneurs need to be encouraged. She chooses this act of female entrepreneurship as the first step in ‘Operation Ijtihad’ because she writes that “Muslims exhibit a knack for degrading women and religious minorities.” She chooses entrepreneurship because “…Muslims have a centuries old affair with commerce” and secondly “…there’s no prohibition in the Quran against women becoming businesspeople.” There is no problem with the sentiment that female entrepreneurs need to be encouraged and this could, in certain ways, revitalise Muslim societies but is it so easy to practise ijtihad?
Ijtihad means the independent assessment of any issue based on the Quran, sunna and fiqh literature and many Muslims (both Sunni and Shia belonging to the recognised schools of Islamic jurisprudence) consider the gates of ijtihad closed. Only a person who is highly qualified in Islamic jurisprudence can practise ijtihad and while Manji may stridently call for ‘Operation Ijtihad’ ijtihad is not a common everyday occurrence in Islam.
The next theme that she addresses is the stubborn streak of Anti-Semitism that prevails among Islamic societies and she blames this on two main reasons. One of these reasons is that Muslims are not aware of the common religious linkages between the two faiths while the second reason is that Palestine has become a global litmus test for Muslims to identify with the ummah. The first reason is not convincing because for any Muslim who is slightly familiar with his religion it is common knowledge that Islam was a denouement of Judaism and Christianity and Mohammed was sent as the last prophet because Jews and the Christians were not good religionists. Moses is a highly respected prophet in Islamic hagiography and there are references to Jews in the Quran.
The second reason where she talks about Palestine she indicts the Arab states more for the plight of Palestinians than Israel. She seems to almost exonerate Israel for the sorry state of Palestinians and accuses Arab states of catalysing the conflict. It is true that the Arab states have had their own self-interests and domestic causes to be propped up under the banner of Palestine but can Israel be non-culpable? It seems funny to even pose the question when we think of the fact that a country was created where none existed before in 1948.
The next theme that she addresses in her book is that Muslims all over the world do not hate America because they perceive it to be against Muslim interests but they hate America because, for them, “Washington is the unrealised hope, not the lead criminal”. And what is this unrealised hope? It is the hope that America will bring democracy to Muslim countries. She strongly endorses American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq but sees them as jobs left incomplete. There has been a regime change bought about by the Americans but now she wants them to make sure that they impose their style of democracy so that Muslims are truly liberated. The fact that America blatantly invaded a sovereign nation on the basis of false evidence doesn’t even merit one sentence.
She is convinced that Muslims love America simply because there is no rejection of American culture in the Middle East. Muslims are desperate to get on the local version of the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Saudi Arabian women buy raunchy lingerie. If Manji is following the protests over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed all over the world, when Pakistani Muslims burn the American flag even though America has nothing to do with the cartoons, is it a sign that they want to be invaded in the hope that true democracy can be imposed?
Another theme that Manji touches upon is of Islam and slavery. She quotes verses from the Quran to demonstrate Islam’s laxity when it comes to the question of slavery. I wonder how she overlooked the fact that one of the first converts to Islam was an Abyssinan slave, Bilal, who was impressed by Mohammed’s message of equality and embraced Islam. He was Islam’s first muezzin, no lowly post.
There are several other jarring issues that she raises in her book. Suicide bombers come in for her prejudiced scrutiny but she chooses to focus on the hackneyed seventy virgins theme that has become a choice ridicule of Muslims while ignoring the desperate situations that lead young men, sometimes not religious at all, to strap themselves with bombs and blow themselves up. She doesn’t talk about female suicide bombers and we can be sure that they don’t blow themselves up because of the seventy virgins in paradise.
Edward Said and Noam Chomsky are dismissed summarily by Manji. She writes that Edward Said whose book Orientalism became such a rage all over the world needs to rethink his theory because his book was distributed by the west. Noam Chomsky also gets his one line dismissal when she writes that it is not the west but Muslims who ‘manufacture consent’ in Allah’s name.
Manji imagines herself to be a pioneer, a mild revolutionary who is intent on reforming Islam. I did find myself nodding to many of the things that she had written when it came to the ritual aspects of Islam. I remember when I was a little child I learnt by rote many verses of the Quran in Arabic without remotely knowing what they meant. I also felt sad that our dog couldn’t come inside our house because he was considered an unclean animal and many fellow Muslims disapproved of it. I’m also dismayed that most Muslims in India look up to the clerics who have been trained in Islamic seminaries that still follow a syllabus based on the Dars-i-Nizami, an outdated syllabus (The syllabus originally consisted of 79 books written between ninth and eighteenth centuries and does not have any Western philosophical text in it)
But many of her arguments are simply not tenable and she makes one factual error when she writes that it is not possible to know the chronology of the revelation of the Quranic verses. It is possible to find out which verses of the Quran were revealed in Mecca and which ones at Medina. Manji should have done more academic research and relied less on anecdotes. Anecdotes are the paraphernalia of a good writer but are subjective and the reliance on anecdotes gives portions of the book an air of a pamphlet. There are faint ripples for reform being heard all over the Muslim world today but Manji’s book will not turn these ripples into waves.
Dear Vikhar Ahmad: I read your review of Irshad Manji’s `The Trouble with Islam Today’ with great interest. I agree to a very large extent with your comments about her (frequently naive) political stance on many issues, most notoriously, on the Israel Palestinian conflict. Your review however underplays the dillemma that she outlines very early in her book : “Can Islam and homosexulaity be reconciled?” (Page 23) I think this idea is pretty central to the book. Whether or not one agrees with her formulations, it has to be taken seriously. Had you engaged with the powerful role that desire plays – of which sexual orientation is an integral part – you may have hesitated to conclude that “She [Irshad Manji] doesn’t talk about female suicide bombers and we can be sure that they don’t blow themselves up because of the seventy virgins in paradise”. Well, we can’t be so sure, can we? Besides, how many better reasons are there to die? Warmly Shohihi
I read your remarks on Vikhar’s review with great interest…
On to the question of whether Islam can be reconciled with homosexuality…
We can approach it doctrinally or historically…
If we approach the question doctrinally we would need to determine the
doctrinal canon within Islam, how it came about, what are the central
texts, how they have changed over time and so on…
That might not be such a fruitful proposition, but when we approach
the questin historically we might find that Islamic societies, that is
to say societies where Islam was a promiennt religion, have been the
great founts of homosexual relations….a predominant part of Persian
and Urdu poetry deals, when it deals with personal emotions, with
young men and boys…and girls in the case of women poets if we
properly unearth them. Half our sufis, I somethimes think in my
exaggeratef flights of fancy, became so because of their same sex
love…it is part of the reason, at least Ralph Russell would think
so, why Urdu poetry does not have a gender specific in its
address…that is perhaps why, pace the mid 18th century travelogue of
Delhi called Muraqqa-e Delhi, a male dancer could earn as much as a
lakh Rs a night for his performance….also that is why the Arabs and
the Afghans have been renowned, at least whatever renown they earned
in our parts of the world, for their sexual predilections…but that
is still a male world, admissibly…
The seventy virgins might or might not have appealed to Rabia, one of
the founders, perhaps THE founder, of Sufism, but irrespective of
gender, she at least expounded for us the simple fact that desire has
to sublimated for it to achieve itself truly…whether it is material
The question really is not homosexuality versus Islam…but
institutionalisation of same sex relations in the modern world versus
its ‘suppression’ in the pre-modern part of it…
When I try and approach the question historically the choices before
me, again, are whether I want a tacit co-existence or a blatant
manifestation…then it is an issue of choosing the modes of
suppression…which one pleases us…
Whatever our choices may be, they do not, from the perspective of the
contemporary modern that we inhabit, cease to be arbitrary…
7th July 2006
Dear Shohini Ghosh,
I must thank you for taking interest and responding to my review and you raise an interesting question.
“Can Islam and homosexuality be reconciled?”
There is an interesting essay that answers this question partly in the book ‘Because I have a Voice’ edited by Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narain. An essay written by Ali Potia explores the experience of growing up gay and Muslim. Potia’s argument in the essay is that Islam does not provide space to homosexuality and thus he chooses a simple way and walks out of Islam (It has been some time since I read this essay but I don’t think I’ve forgotten his argument – but if I’ve got it wrong in any way I apologise). This would be an interesting place to start your exploration of the question whether Islam and homosexuality can be reconciled.
Secondly, I will try to look at the primary source of Islamic Shariah, i.e., the Quran and try to give an answer to the question whether Islam and homosexuality can be reconciled. The caveat here is that I cannot even claim mild expertise on the shariah but hopefully my answer would be a semblance of the orthodox scriptural response to the whole issue.
In the seventh chapter of the Quran, Al-A’raf Verse 81 strictly speaks out against homosexuality. The story of the Prophet Lot is common to the three semitic faiths and he was sent “…as a Prophet and warner to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities utterly destroyed for their unspeakable sins”.
Chapter 7, Verse 80-81:
We also (sent) Lut:
He said to his people:
“Do ye commit lewdness
Such as no people
In creation (ever) committed
“For ye practice your lusts
On men in preference
To women: ye are indeed
A people transgressing
Chapter 26, Verse 165-166 says:
“Of all the creatures
In the world, will ye
And leave those whom Allah
Has created for you
To be your mates?
Nay, ye are a people
Transgressing (all limits)!”
Thus, it is clear from these verses that the Quran considers homosexuality to be a transgression and there would not be place for homosexuality within Islam. There are also other verses in the Quran that speak about this theme. I remember having a conversation with Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte, a lawyer who studied in NLS, about this a long time back when he was doing some research on Islamic Liberation Theology. He was trying to reconcile Islam and homosexuality using these verses but I don’t think interpretations of Islamic law can really alter this fundamental piece of Quranic evidence.
About the point you make about the role of desire this should clear matters up a bit but I am also looking at some material on the psychology of suicide bombers. I will write to you again about that.
Thirdly, I disagree with you when you say that the question of Islam and homosexuality is central to Manji’s book. The central theme in Manji’s book is her emphasis that there needs to be a reform within the contemporary understanding of Islam. Within this larger theme Islam’s orthodox denial of homosexuality is one part. What I find very interesting about Manji is that she strongly identifies herself with Islam even though orthodox Muslims would not consider her to be a Muslim. Unlike Ali Potia she does not choose to abandon Islam.
A fourth point that I would like to make would add on to Mahmood Farroqui’s comments. Historically Islamic societies (I find that phrase slightly troublesome because can there be a society whose basis is primarily religious – Islamic in this instance- but let me use it in this case) have condoned homosexuality. I will cite two instances that this is shown.
In Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’ there is excessive reference to pederasty as an accepted form of sensual gratification in sixteenth century Turkey. At that point of time the Caliphate (which can in some senses be interpreted as a symbol of power more than a religious symbol) was with the Turks. Thus, it could be categorized as one of the more religious Islamic societies in the world at that time. There is a celebration of same sex love and the manner in which the miniaturist ‘Butterfly’ is described and the relationship between Master Osman and his apprentices alluded to without any sense of shame portrays same sex love beautifully. I found Pamuk’s novel to be well researched historically and that is why I think this can be cited as a valid example.
A second instance is that of Baburnama. This is a sixteenth century text again and is Babur’s autobiography. Babur, unashamedly, describes his feelings of love for a boy in his adolescence. He writes about his feelings for the boy, “…before this experience I had never felt a desire for anyone, nor did I listen to talk of love and affection or speak of such things”. Thus, I think I can (based on the limited evidence I could muster) conclude that historically Islamic societies have made no secret of the fact that homosexuality was accepted (Again, same-sex love between women is something that I do not have any evidence on).
I have made an attempt to provide you with an initial idea of ‘Islam and homosexuality’ but I confess that I need to read up more on the issue myself. I will also keep you updated if I find any more relevant material about this.
Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed.
Dear Vikhar: Thanks for your reply. The broad discussion of homosexuality and Islam is a different debate and much has been written on it already. You may already have read the following but I’d still like to recommend Same Sex Love in India by Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai, 2000 published by Palgrave in India and St. Matrtin’s Press in the US. The feminist literature from Arab countries is very instructive because it challenges the idea of a homogenous Islamic society. An excellent collection of essays, stories and cartoons is Women and Sexualtity in Muslim Societies, A Publication of Women for Human Rights, New York.edited by Pinkar Ikkaracan. It shows how diiverse women’s sexualities in Muslim countries are and its total import is far more radical then anything that Irshad Manji has written even though queer sexuality is not the only concern of the book. These women are not asking for reform-they are the reform. Since you are interested in suicide bombers and Muslim afterlife – there’s the brilliantly funny Women in Muslim Paradise by Fatima Mernissi published by Kali for Women, 1986 (second edition 1988). The new English translation of Chocolate and Other Stories of Male-Male Desire by Pandey Bechan Sharma Ugra (OUP 2006) with an absolutely wonderful introduction by Ruth Vanita (also the translator). She talks about how Hindu nationalist writer Ugra, while ostensibly condemning homosexualty in Chocolate, actually makes a case for it. Written in 1927, Chocolate had created a public furore in which even Gandhi and Premchand had joined in. The book shows how complex and clever the negotiation between religion and non-conformist ideas can be. Wishing You all the Best Warmly Shohini